New Zealand short film Grass Roots explores economic, medical benefits of recreational cannabis

Stephen McDowell is on a "journey to educate" New Zealanders with a short film he hopes conveys the economic and medical benefits of recreational cannabis.

The Invercargill-born filmmaker's Grass Roots: The Reality of Legalisation follows his travels to Oregon, a US state with a similar population, landmass, GDP and relative geographical position to Aotearoa. 

In Oregon cannabis is legal for both medical and recreational use, while in New Zealand voters are preparing for a referendum in September.

McDowell is passionate about making Kiwis aware of the benefits of cannabis, with the driving force behind his documentary being his mother. 

She suffers from chronic pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia, for which she takes Prednisone, a prescription medication that McDowell says is "killing her". 

"I've watched her suffer in pain my whole entire life," McDowell tells Newshub.  

He says it took a bit of persuading to convince his mother that medical cannabis may help her conditions. 

After McDowell shared with his mother everything he knew about the benefits of cannabis, she eventually agreed to try to get a prescription for CBD, which GPs are able to prescribe under New Zealand's medical cannabis regulations.

Cannabis is made up of more than 120 components or 'cannabinoids'. The most well-known are CBD - the non-psychoactive component of cannabis - along with THC, which is the psychoactive that can make a user feel 'high'. 

McDowell went to four different doctors to talk about prescribing CBD to his mother but was turned down by all of them. 

"One doctor told me he didn't know enough about cannabis and when I started explaining about the endocannabinoid system he got offended and told me to be quiet," McDowell says. 

New Zealand's cannabis referendum: Do you support the proposed Cannabis Legalisation and Control Bill? Yes/No
Here's what Kiwis will be voting on come September 19. Photo credit: Newshub

Because the endocannabinoid system was not discovered in the human body until 1988, McDowell believes medical professionals who studied prior to this time will not have a full understanding of the system.

"Anyone over the age of 50 that studied at university never learnt about this system. It wasn't in their textbooks. That's where the generational misinformation comes from."

Another barrier to obtaining medical cannabis in Aotearoa is the cost. It's not funded by Pharmac and each prescription of CBD costs an average of $250 - a cost that's unaffordable for many Kiwis, including McDowell's mother.

"It is not available to everybody. It is only available for a small percentage and I would call those the elite, the wealthy. It's about making this available to everybody and increasing availability," he says.  

One opposing voice to McDowell is Family First national director Bob McCroskie, who is strongly against legalising cannabis for recreational use as he believes it is harmful to the brain.

"This is not a 'war on drugs' - it is a defence of our brains. It is a fight for health and safety," he wrote on his organisation's website.

Family First is behind the 'Say No to Dope' campaign, which aims to encourage families to vote 'no' in the upcoming referendum.

McDowell hopes his documentary will educate New Zealanders who have misconceptions about cannabis before the referendum vote.

"Education is key. I want people to go to their parents, go to their colleagues and have this difficult conversation," he says.

"This is going to affect so many people and it's going to dramatically impact our economy."

McDowell's full 16 minute documentary can be viewed for free via his 'Buzzy Kiwi' Instagram account.